Donegal’s Jason McGee, left, and Conor Glass of Derry in Ulster championship action. [Inpho/Lorcan Doherty]

McGuinness picks Derry's lock

Donegal 4-11; Derry 0-17

No one organizes a sporting ambush quite like Jim McGuinness! 

All last week his critics and the so-called pundits predicted that he would have to come up with some really new strategy to beat Mickey Harte’s all-conquering Derry side as they set out to try to win three-in-a-row of Ulster Championship at Celtic Park on Saturday evening.

As the 15,000 fans filed out after the game, many were shaking their heads at what they had just seen play out in front of their eyes. Instead of discovering a new blueprint, the Donegal boss cleverly looked at the oldest tactic in town­ – find your foe’s strength and turn it into a weakness.

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By hammering the hammer he saw where Donegal could take advantage of Derry’s set up - and then did it time and again to devastating effects, which ended up with the men in green and gold running in four goals while seldom looking like conceding any.

Yes, the McGuinness fingerprints were all over this shock victory – and in retrospect we shouldn’t have been in the least surprised at how easily a master can pick a lock when he sees what combination is set before him.

All league long Harte’s decision to use his custodian as a “fly-keeper” had helped Derry win more than his share of kickouts and stultify other teams’ efforts to dictate play from their own restarts. 

On Saturday, the Oak Leafs  plan to continue along similar lines became something of a hoist of their own petard as Donegal targeted where the netminder was and then by flicking kickout balls onto a free player, it allowed  him to advance onto the unprotected citadel and raise green flags. Three goals came from this tactic plus several near misses and a number of points. 

Out-thought and out-fought, Derry failed to see that this new play was a beaten docket on the night and instead of going back to a more measured set-up, kept hammering their heads at this particular wall which resulted in a bloody defeat on their own patch.

After an initial period of seeing the lie of the land, Donegal began to impose their blueprint on the game and the arrival of Daoire Ó Baoill's first-half goal was the exact tonic his side needed to go on and finish the demolition job on the Derry press.

The malfunction of the league winners will be a cause of serious review by Harte and his backroom team. However, what doesn’t kill them may make them stronger. Yes, there will be no hat-trick of successive Ulster titles but they now have time to regroup for the All-Ireland series.

They haven’t become a bad team overnight, but they will have to be aware of how tactically aware McGuinness is as aside from flushing out the “fly keeper” experiment in the Derry ranks, he also managed to have two of their top players, Conor Glass and Shane McGuigan, largely anonymous in a scary sort of way if you are an Oak Leaf fan. 

It started oh so differently with Derry bossing the early kick outs and the scoreboard but once the likes of Ryan McHugh and Caolan McGonagle started to win the break and hare forward at breakneck speed, the holes in the previous watertight Derry defense became all too apparent.

By the quarter hour, the Donegal boys had sussed their opponents and went ahead to lead 1-6 to 0-8 at the break. With the breeze blowing at the champions backs, the feeling was they would kick on but no one told Donegal about that particular narrative. A long kickout from Shane Patton was expertly flicked on by Niall O’Donnell to Ó Baoill to take advantage of Lynch being up in midfield playing as an outfield player.

The Donegal man made a forward run before curling the ball in the direction of the empty net. Lynch manfully was trying to get back but could only help the lobbed ball into his own net.

At 2-9 to 0-8 there were still home fans believing they had enough time to retrieve the situation but that went out the window when a great run by Shane O'Donnell into the Derry square saw him upended by Chrissy McKaigue. Owen Gallen put the keeper the wrong way to make it 3-8 to 0-10 and you knew there was only going to be one result after that.

Niall O’Donnell’s black card offered Derry faint hope but no more as they knocked over a brace of points.  Patton’s injury turned out not to be a factor as Donegal struck for a fourth goal from Jamie Brennan.

Afterwards the RTE panelist Ciaran Whelan, a former Dublin All Star, claimed that McGuinness had wiped the floor tactically with Harte. McGuinness was more sanguine when interviewed and said he loved being part of this particular championship.

"I'm trying to instill that in the boys as well and I don't think that's a hard job. They're special nights and I'm just delighted that we were able to bring the level that was required because Derry are a phenomenal team. One swallow doesn't make a summer from our point of view.

"Derry will be there, I have no doubt about that, at the business end of the season, with Dublin and Kerry. For us, it's a victory, it puts us into the next round and that's the most important and pleasing thing.”

Talking about the goal avalanche, he emphasized: "They took them well when they came. Those transitional moments are hard-got now in the game. I was delighted even in the second half when we got turnovers close to our own goal, the passion and the drive was there to get up the field and support each other. Those bits and pieces were very pleasing."

However, he was at pains to point out that Donegal had only won a match that brings them to the semi-final of the Ulster series. “It's a step along the road. I played in a Donegal team when we won the All-Ireland and the Ulster Championship in the first year and we never won another Ulster Championship after that, so football can give you a lot of reality checks.

“We're excited about the next round. We won't be looking beyond that game because once you start doing that, you get a bloody nose. For us, it's important to try and build on this, try and build on the energy, hopefully it adds to the confidence level, and take the next step on the road as it comes,” he concluded.

Donegal: S Patton; M Curran, C Moore (0-1), P Mogan (0-1);  R McHugh (0-2), C McGonagle, S O'Donnell; C Thompson (0-1), M Langan; B McCole, N O'Donnell(0-1), D Ó Baoill (2-1); J McGee, O Gallen (1-2 1-0pen, 0-1f, 0-1'45), A NDoherty Subs: G Mulreany for  Patton (inj), 55mins; J Brennan (1-0) for A Doherty, 57 mins; P McBrearty(0-1f) for N O'Donnell, 58 mins; O Doherty for J McGee, 66 mins; K McGettigan for Curran, 69mins.

Derry: O Lynch; C McCluskey, C McKaigue (0-1), D Baker; C Doherty (0-1), E McEvoy, P McGrogan; C Glass, B Rogers(0-2); E Doherty (0-4), C McFaul, P Cassidy (0-2, 0-1m);  N Loughlin, S McGuigan (0-4, 0-2f), L Murray (0-1) Subs: N Toner (0-1) for N Loughlin, 27 mins; G McKinless (0-1) for  McGrogan, 28 mins; E Bradley for Murray, 50 mins; D Gilmore for  McKaigue, 58 mins; E Mulholland for  McFaul, 65 mins.

Ref: D Gough (Meath).